Grant allows ASU archaeologist to study how environment influences evolution

December 21, 2005

ASU archaeologist Curtis Marean wants to learn more about modern human evolution by gaining a better understanding of the physical environment in which ancient peoples lived. Marean says relatively little is known about the environment that drove the evolution of modern humans.

To remedy that situation, Marean, who recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is bringing archaeologists together with scientists specializing in caves, ancient dune systems, chemical dating methods and other topics relevant to human evolution and ecological studies. The team will try to reconstruct the ancient ecological factors that likely influenced the evolution of Homo sapiens, and see what that might tell us about our species' future.

Marean is primarily concerned with an area of South Africa called Mossel Bay, known for its rich human fossil collection and considered by many scientists to be an important site in the history of human evolution. Marean believes a team-based approach will result in more fruitful research than the typically exclusive work done by specialists.

"This really is a transdisciplinary research project," Marean said. "Breaking down the boundaries between disciplines is very hard, but when you bring everyone together to interpret the same information, it gives you a lot more than if there was just that one specialist working on it."

Researchers agree that modern humans evolved in Africa, but little is known about the ancient ecology at the time. Scientists know that environment is one of the biggest influences that drives evolution, so reconstructing the environment from 400,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago might hold the key to understanding why humans evolved the way they did, Marean said.

"During glacial advances throughout the Pleistocene period (an era from 1.6 million years ago to 11,000 years ago), Africa became a lot drier and the Sahara Desert grew wider, creating isolated pockets of human civilization," Marean explained. "Isolation is a perfect condition for evolution to occur, so now we get to the question of how the environment and climate impacted that evolution."

Marean said Neanderthals are a perfect example of how studying prehistoric climates can lead to increased knowledge about the way a species thrived--and died--in their particular environments. By looking at the past, Marean said, it could allow us to see how previous ecological trends might affect our own species in the future.

"We can look at the warming trends in the past and see how global warming might change vegetation, for example," Marean added. "The past is the key to the present figuring out what may happen in the future."
-end-
Source:
Curtis Marean, (480) 965-7796

Arizona State University

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